My 33 1/3 book, on Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works Volume II, was the 5th bestselling book in the series in 2014. It's available at Amazon (including Kindle) and via your local bookstore. • F.A.Q.Key Tags: #saw2for33third, #sound-art, #classical, #juntoElsewhere: Twitter, SoundCloud, Instagram

Listening to art.
Playing with audio.
Sounding out technology.
Composing in code.

tag: gadget

A Mixtape Singularity

Burning to CD a tape of vinyl in the age of streaming

I’m ripping old cassette mixtapes and burning them to CD for a friend’s birthday party, marking a significant milestone — the party, not the ripping. It used to take a long time to rip a CD, almost as long as it did to listen to one. Then it took very little time at all. At some point the digital process sped up so much that the CD itself essentially disintegrated, or at least its utility did. That is, you no longer needed the CD at all. Audio had, in a manner, reached a singularity. Digital had accelerated to the point where you bypassed the physical medium entirely, and you listened directly to the digital audio file on a device that both stored and played back the file. The intermediary CD, that mirror-faced descendant of the vinyl LP and the tape cassette, was no longer a requisite.

Where streaming sits along or alongside this continuum remains a little unclear. Streaming is more like radio than it is like a recording medium. Radio can be said to have experienced its own parallel acceleration toward a singularity: optimization through automation of commercial broadcasts. Commercial radio went, over time, from a freeform medium to one managed by human beancounters, to one managed by algorithmic beancounters. At some point the algorithm decided for us — not unlike humanity’s helicopter parent at the center of D.F. Jones’s anxious artificial-intelligence novel Colossus, published in 1966, same year as the first Association for Computing Machinery Turning Prize — that the optimal ’cast scenario wasn’t broad-cast at all. Instead, the algorithm proclaimed beneficently, we should all stream what we want to stream.

In many instances, thousands upon thousands of people might be listening to the exact same song at roughly the same time, but off by a matter of seconds or minutes. Somewhere right now thousands upon thousands of people are listening to the latest momentarily popular verse-chorus-verse assemblage about failed or expectant romance. If we were able to listen to them all at once it would be a mutant version of the original: repeated, layered, looping back on itself, reaching crescendos of volume during peak listening, and fading out when the majority of the population in the target audience — Central Time Zone in North America, perhaps — happens to be asleep.

That communal sound, if we had access to it — if, say, the Spotify API could let us sync and produce such a pop-music ambient surveillance apparatus — might produce an apt sonic portrait of what it means to listen in culture, to listen to culture, at this moment. Imagine observing Spotify activity the way a service like Listen to Wikipedia (listen.hatnote.com), by Mahmoud Hashemi and Stephen LaPorte, allows us to observer activity on the global communal encyclopedia: we wouldn’t be listening to Spotify so much as Listening to Listening to Spotify.

I have a dream where observing that streaming process becomes not just technically possible but genuinely popular, and pop music itself mutates to match the new norm. Songs as we known them would slowly disappear, replaced by rich, long miasmas: a slow-motion, longitudinal EDM of ambient pop. Paul Lamere is the Director of Developer Platform at Echonest, a division of Spotify. I asked him this past week if my dream API scenario could be implemented, and he said the current API doesn’t necessarily support it, but he pointed me to a visualization tool called Serendipity coded by Kyle McDonald during an arts residency there. McDonald’s Serendipity depicts pairs of people listening, per chance, to the same track within seconds of each other across the globe.

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As for the ripping and burning of cassette tapes to CDs, it’s proceeding at its own, antediluvian pace. It’s very fast to burn a CD, but the tape needs to be recorded at its original speed. I have no fancy, double-speed cassette player, just this old stereo-system component. There are no functional silences on the tape, at least not by contemporary standards. In regard to these mixtapes, this isn’t simply because of the static of the tape’s own surface noise. It’s because the tape was itself second generation: most of these tracks were copied from LPs, so the CD versions are replicating not just the tape noise, but the vinyl noise, as well as whatever file-format compression is involved on the digital side of things. The residual file-format artifact is inaudible to me, and probably to most people. Perhaps down the road we’ll be able “hear” that something was an MP3 or a Wav or a FLAC file the way, today, we can “hear” that something was vinyl or tape. The idea that a skill like that would become commonplace seems futuristic, but then again the idea of burning one’s own digital media once seemed futuristic — and now burning one’s own digital media doesn’t just seem antiquated; it is antiquated.

The original reason to make these tapes was just to have some dusty musical memories playing at the party, but it’s clear now that the music is only part of the memory process. The tape hiss and the vinyl crackle will provide their own ambience, as will the physical act of putting one of these CDs into a CD player. (A thumb drive is being filled up, too, just in case. In the world of Spotify playlists — and, yes, Apple Music and Google Play Music, among others — tiny portable hard drives are simply another, more recent antiquity.) The physical act of putting a CD into a player will initiate a surface hiss that will summon the physical act of putting a tape in a tape player, and in that tape noise there will appear the sound of a needle touching vinyl, triggering yet another memory of physical activity. Audio has passed its singularity, and in our post-physical listening mode we now hear echoes of our earlier, embodied listening. Nostalgia may be as much a fool’s game as is futurism, but heck, that’s what birthdays are for.

Right now, though, I’m just watching in a software program called Audacity to keep an eye on the audio levels of the source tape. When they flatline, I’ll know the tape is through.

This first appeared in the January 26, 2016, edition of the free Disquiet “This Week in Sound” email newsletter: tinyletter.com/disquiet.

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Music for Doorbells

Liner notes I wrote for the new Jeff Kolar album

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Jeff Kolar’s new album, on the Panospria label, is all about doorbells. Titled Doorbell, it’s a series of recordings he made — music for doorbells — that follows up an earlier exploration he made of the smoke alarm. I wrote the liner notes for Doorbell, which is a free download:

“Welcome Music”

For whom does the doorbell toll? On the one hand, it is an alert for the inhabitant of a building. The bell rings, and that ring lets the inhabitant know that a delivery, a friend, a colleague, or some other visitor has arrived. On the other hand, the bell is a confirmation for the visitors that their presence has, in fact, been registered.

The doorbell is, thus, both ringtone and ringback simultaneously. The doorbell’s ringtone is, to some extent, the choice of the inhabitant, though the number of people who ever elect to fine-tune their doorbell’s sound is likely quite small. The ringback — “a sound made by a cellular phone that is heard by a person who is calling that phone while waiting for the call to be connected” — is a muted version of the doorbell. It is the doorbell heard through the door, shaped by the resonance of the hall in which it first resounds.

It took the artist Jeff Kolar, an obsessive sonic explorer, not only to fine-tune his doorbell sounds, but to record them himself. Kolar’s body of work is steeped in noise so quotidian that it is effectively ignored by, if not inaudible to, most people. Many doorbells can trace their tones back to bells and chimes. Kolar, instead, used a Yamaha organ to construct his dozen rings. The results range from mantra-like beading drones, to haunted-house chords, to swelling wah-wah, to subtle stepwise waveforms.

Kolar’s doorbells first took shape as actual doorbells, hung on a gallery wall, waiting for visitors to trigger them. Only later were they collected as recordings for anyone to stream, download, even — if they have the maker bug — to install at the entrance to their own homes and businesses. As such, the work builds on Kolar’s previous efforts with blissfully mundane aural subjects, such as his study of the fierce sonic textures of smoke detectors. That piece, like his doorbells, began in a gallery and was later documented as a record album. The doorbells also share a kinship with Kolar’s ongoing engagement with that most ubiquitous and ephemeral of sonic mediums: radio waves.

The sounds of Kolar’s doorbells have many inherent associations, but the organ, with its explicit churchly stature, seems to nudge forward one association in particular: the arrival of an evangelical missionary dead-set on sharing salvation.

Marc Weidenbaum
San Francisco
October 2015

Kolar provides a bit more information in the accompanying note:

Doorbell is permanently installed as a ringable doorbell system outside of the Urban Gray Ballroom in Greensboro, North Carolina. Each of the twelve Doorbell tracks are designed to loop continuously. This project was produced for the “Museum as Instrument” residency curated by Shannon Stratton and Joe Jeffers at Elsewhere Museum in July 2015.

Album originally posted on December 10, 2015, at archive.org, and then at soundcloud.com/jeffkolar. The surreal cover art is by Aleia Murawski. More from Kolar at jeffkolar.us.

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“The Crying Bowl”

Noise Jockey explores a resonating body.

The singing bowl is one of the major proto-ambient instruments. A bowl, rubbed or struck, emits a purely tonal sound that has no attack — no hard starting point, as would a struck guitar string or a piano key — and that sound, in turn, lingers for a long time. Noise Jockey has used a variety of electronic tools and performance techniques to update and amplify the singing bowl. His “The Crying Bowl” turns an everyday salad bowl into an otherworldly vehicle for tonal expression. In this case, the bowl is serving less as an instrument unto itself and more as an amplifier, providing, in Noise Jockey’s words, the “resonant body” from which the source audio emanates.

That source audio is from a gorgeous touch-sensitive instrument called the Tocante Phashi, designed by Peter Blasser of Ciat-Lonbarde, and pictured here. The Phasi, along with other instruments in the Tocante line, employs capacitors (the exposed circuit board) to control a large number of oscillators. It also has a built-in solar panel for charging its internal battery.

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Track originally posted at soundcloud.com/noisejockey. More from Noise Jockey, aka Nathan Moody of San Francisco, at noisejockey.net, twitter.com/noisejockey, and nathanmoody.bandcamp.com. Phasi image from pugix.com/synth.

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Strain and Grain

C. Reider returns to the cassette-tape loop

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C. Reider’s Tape Loops, recently released on Linear Obsessional Recordings, returns him to an early favorite media of his, after many years spent in the digital world. The media is magnetic tape, which Reider, who’s based in Colorado, once enjoyed as a participant in the mail-art network.

He revisits what was long ago an everyday technology as something today of an archival and arcane one (though there is a growing number of cassette labels in recent years). There was a physical release of this album, true to its inspiration. That combined a CDR, which was a spiritual grandchild of the cassette, with hand-engineered cassettes that contained a loop. Even though the physical edition is sold out, the digital release is a rewarding one all on its own. It’s a series of looped compositions, half an hour in all. The strain and grain of the tape is evident in every piece, bits of noise, and orchestral glimmering, and vocal warbles, all pieced together amid an overarching mechanical sensibility.

An annotation to the album provides some additional context:

Getting deep into the process and working with thrift-store cassettes he uses a number of radical techniques to create his tape loops, including lengthening the tape, shredding it, making new tapes from tiny fragments and reassembling them.

The resulting piece is a haunting and mesmeric meditation on the texture of sound recorded on magnetic tape and is one or reider’s most powerful works to date.

A booklet accompanying the release gets into more detail. Here’s an excerpt:

Some of my experiments involved extending the length of the loop inside the shell. When making a loop housed in a standard tape shell, the filament can’t be too slack or too tight. If it’s too slack, it will get caught in the playback mechanism resulting in the tape being “eaten” (is that how they say it outside of the US?) If too tight the loop just won’t play back. Normally, I would loop the tape around the two tape guide rollers and the two reels inside the re- used tape shells, requiring a strand of tape 9.125 inches in length. That would result in a loop that comes back to the splice point every 5 seconds when played back at the normal speed of 1.875 inches per second. The physical barriers inside the shell dictate the length of the loop. To shorten or lengthen a loop one has to remove or provide more barriers around which the tape will pass. I found that if there were a bunch of new barriers inside the shell, the tape makes a turn at each one (imagine a serpentine fan belt in a car,) meaning more length can fit. More length equals more time. To add barriers, I drilled holes through one side of the cassette shell, and pressed through pieces of PTFE Teflon rod to give me pivot points around which to guide the tape. The most complicated of my pivot-point alterations had the tape traveling around nine different points resulting in a tape length of 19 inches that looped every 10 seconds.

As with most techniques I use in my sound practice, the process of these modifications were easy to do in terms of technique, but they did require some amount of patience and mindfulness.

Audio originally posted at linearobsessional.bandcamp.com. More from Reider at vuzhmusic.com, soundcloud.com/vuzhmusic, and twitter.com/vuzhmusic.

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Immediacy + Accessibility = Joy

The past and future of mobile music — a conversation with with PalmSounds.net founder Ashley Elsdon

Finger Painting: A hand interacts with the innovative Borderlands Granular iPad app

Finger Painting: A hand interacts with the innovative Borderlands Granular iPad app

One of the great resources for mobile music — from iPad apps to small new gadgets — is the website palmsounds.net. For almost a decade, Ashley Elsdon has tracked, and participated in, the development of mobile audio, from full-blown digital workstations to casual entertainment, what here on Disquiet.com is often referred to as “audio-games.”

Elsdon graciously submitted to an interview, which we did over a few weeks as a collaborative Google Drive document. The discussion ranges from the early sonic hacking of the now ancient PalmPilot to the museum-approved devices from Teenage Engineering. In between we touch on old-school manufacturers such as Korg and Roland adapting their hardware for use as software, Elsdon’s own efforts to use mobile tech to aid those with learning disabilities, as well as his and my mutual disappointment that — so far, at least — mobile music has not yet become a general-public form of entertainment, even as it has become a massive force in professional and home-based music production.

Marc Weidenbaum: I want to start with the name of your site, palmsounds.net. The word “palm” is in it because it started in relation to the making of music on the Palm Pilot, right — what later became “Palm OS”?

Ashley Elsdon: You’re right there. It did start as a result of making music on Palm OS devices. This came about because I started using a Palm III a long time ago, mostly for getting myself organised. But as I started to get used to the device I realised just how much these little computers could do and what a vast community there was for them (which is sadly all but gone). Eventually I stumbled into looking into the musical capabilities of the Palm OS. Back in the late 1990s it was, to say the least, minimal, but it was there. A site called “minimusic.com” had started developing some notation and sequencing apps for the Palm OS (although back then we didn’t call them apps) and I started playing with these. But even then this was quite a while before Palm Sounds started. As Palm OS evolved, a new app arrived called Bhajis Loops, which was, and in fact still is, one of the best mobile music making apps ever, in my opinion. I spent a lot of time with that app.

The Palm III , introduced in 1998

Memento Mori: The Palm III , introduced in 1998

It wasn’t long after that I started to write Palm Sounds. I was experimenting with blogging about a bunch of different subjects, and making music on mobile devices was the one that really stuck for me. I was actually quite surprised that people were interested in such a niche subject. But they were, and people started to contact me about mobile music, and things have just continued from there. The rest is history as they say.

Substance Over Stylus: Screen interfaces for the Palm software Bhaji Loops, the work of Olivier Gillet

Substance Over Stylus: Screen interfaces for the Palm software Bhaji Loops, the work of Olivier Gillet, later of Mutable Instruments

Weidenbaum: What year was that around? Could you provide a general timeline for major milestones for the site’s development?

Elsdon: Hmm, actually, that’s quite difficult. The site started off in 2006, but as for milestones I can’t remember much I’m afraid.

Weidenbaum: I feel like the word “palm” right now works as a good synonym for “mobile,” because we have some distance from Palm OS’s onetime ubiquity. Was there a time when you considered changing the name?

Elsdon: In fact I did, and a lot of people talked to me about changing the name. Some people were quite vocal as well. In the end I decided against it as I just didn’t think it was worth it. Palm Sounds grew out of the Palm OS and the musical apps that were around back then. However, it did occur to me that Palm was also a good way to describe handheld music making, so I stuck with it, and in hindsight I’m glad that I did. So much of mobile music has become about iOS that it’s sort of become the only thing that people talk about and I’ve always wanted Palm Sounds to be about more than just one operating system, or one technology. So I think that Palm Sounds is still a good name and is more about mobile music in its most general sense, rather than just iOS. Read more »

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